Stratasys, one of the two giants in the 3D printing market (the other is 3DSystems), is on a roll. This summer it bought one of the biggest and beloved home 3D-printer makers, MakerBot, and watched its printers churn out the first 3D-printed gun. Now it's back in the news for suing printer reseller Afinia for infringing on its patents.
These patents cover some of the most basic aspects of 3D printing, from the process of creating “infill,” the cross-hatched pattern that printers use to support the inside, to the heated plate that keeps objects stuck during printing. MakerBot, in fact, has long infringed on these very same patents and, for most of its existence, has skirted lawsuits, albeit with positive results. Many smaller manufactures haven't been so lucky.
Even Formlabs, makers of the Form One stereolithographic machine, weren't immune. They went to market last December while facing down 3D Systems lawyers for daring to use a similar printing technique.
Why is Big 3D finally paying attention to little guys like Formlabs and Afinia aka Microboards Technology, LLC? It's because they're finally getting traction in the home market. While it's usually fine for B2B companies to snipe each other – nobody cares when big CRM smashes some puny competitor – this sniping is actually hurting the industry. By slowing down the adopting of home 3D printing, Stratasys and 3D Systems are cutting into their own bottom line. IBM, in the 1980s, never actively attacked the “clones” that sprung up on the market and we now have a variegated ecosystem of hardware that ranges from mobile devices to mainframes. No one stopped Linux from copying techniques and tricks used by Unix and, eventually, Windows, and the result is a deep and rich vein of open source computing prowess.
Patents served Stratasys and 3D Systems well when 3D printing was hard. To compete with them, competitors had to have deep pockets and be ready to pay licensing fees. Now that literally anyone can build an MakerBot-like FDM machine out of a few simple parts – this guy made one for $100 – the impetus for protection is far more mercenary. They are, in short, threatened.
The EFF has been trying to swat down fake patents, for better or worse, but the problem will continue to plague small makers until the patents expire. It does not benefit Stratasys to troll the small guy (unless it's to protect its MakerBot investment, which would be a delightful bit of irony) and, in the end, it hurts the industry as a whole. The more people who know how to do home 3D printing, the more people who will be interested in professional products. That said, perhaps Stratasys is concerned that the home 3D printers will supplant its professional business. If this is the case, it's a baseless fear akin to Ford being afraid of go-kart hobbyists.
Patents are fine when they truly protect the filers from predators. When the filers themselves, become the predators, however, the issue clouds the market, destroys innovation, and makes the big guys look mean. That's not good for anyone.